Thursday, August 11, 2005

Testimonies or Tests?

"As I said: who's in, who's out."

This, to me, is much too dismissive. A creed is what the church believes.

And every church has a creed. It may not be written. The church may disclaim any reliance on creeds. But it will have traditions which set up acceptable parameters.

The Baptists help us out with the "Baptist Faith and Message." It's not a creed, but I suspect that any minister who departs seriously from it will soon get his pink slip from the board of deacons.
I hadn't expected to spark a discussion on creedalism, but it is an old one in church history, and extends well back into the origins of Protestantism. As the UCC says at its website:

The United Church of Christ embraces a theological heritage that affirms the Bible as the authoritative witness to the Word of God, the creeds of the ecumenical councils, and the confessions of the Reformation. The UCC has roots in the "covenantal" tradition—meaning there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. Christ alone is Head of the church. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.

"Testimony," in that tradition, is linked to confession. "Test" is the determination of who is allowed to be a member, a decision with very serious consequences when the church was aligned with the state, and so could block access both to salvation and to privileges controlled by government or society. Old resentments about such authority die hard (and recur, as people like Falwell, Dobson, and Robertson are attempting to do now). Certainly every institution has its litmus test, and eventually the distinctions do matter (unitarians v. trinitarians, Jewish or Christian?, etc.). But creeds have historically been used to determine who is allowed within the tent, and historically, some groups have rejected that emphasis. The question of "acceptable parameters" is, of course, always an issue. But that's not the issue with creedalism v. non-creedalism. The issue is: where are the parameters, and how are they decided? On corporate proclamation? Or individual conscience?

Creeds should be what the church believes. But too often, they have been (and are used) as what the individuals should believe. A test, not a testimony. (which, I understand, is a Protestant stance; but then, I'm still a Protestant).

A creed defines what a church believes. But the very nature of definition is that it draws a line, and so defines as well, what the church doesn't believe. Where those lines get drawn, or should be drawn, and why, is the very nature of the controversy of creedalism. Of such controversies are new denominations, and even new churches, created.

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